This story is about a displaced eight-year-old boy, from the village of Sheylanli, in the Laçın (Lacin or Lachin) district of Azerbaijan, who became a victim of a war. Now a grownup, he was able to travel to his liberated birth homeland and recall the past while having many hopes for the new reality future.
Lachin, spelled Laçın in Azerbaijani, is a town within the strategic Lachin corridor, which connects the Nagorno-Karabakh region with Armenia. After the 44 days war – September 27 to November 10, 2020 – between Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to the ceasefire agreement, the region ended up being under the supervision of a Russian peacekeeping force.
The town of Laçın is the de jure centre of Azerbaijan’s Lachin Region, which was under the de facto illegal occupation of Armenia since 1992.
Reminiscing Life in Sheylanli
Sheylanli, Şeylanlı in Azerbaijani, is a village in the Lachin district of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan’s historical victory in the 2020 war is a victory for close to one million Azerbaijanis who have been living under the ‘displaced people’ title for 30 years. The 1992 war caused them to become refugees in their own country.
I first met Gulmammad Mammadov in 2019 in Los Angeles. Today the former refugee from Lachin is a professor at ADA University in Azerbaijan.
Gulmammad was 8-years-old, attending primary school, at the time when Armenia invaded Azerbaijan in 1992. That war took place from 20 February 1988 to 12 May 1994.
I caught up with Gulmammad after his recent trip to the liberated Lachin. He tried to put perspective, mixed with emotions, to his childhood memories, his years as a Displaced Person (DP) and now, married and a father to a baby daughter with a steady academic career.
The Sheylanli village, then made of some 140 Azerbaijani families, nestled in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, in the northern part of the Lachin region on the western side of the Hakari River, is 35 kilometers northwest of the town of Lachin and 330 kilometers from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
Located near Azerbaijan’s border with Armenia, most of the village’s economy was based on agriculture and cattle farming. Before the war, the Armenians used to cross the border, work in the village and then return to their homes across the border. If the winters, snow fall was heavy, and the Armenians would remain in the village for the harsh winter months, warmly hosted by Azerbaijani families.
Before the war, Azerbaijan was a satellite of the Communist Soviet Union. “During the Soviets’ time my father worked at the Village’s ‘Collective Farms.’ Our village’s summer and early fall weather conditions were well suited for the cattle and agriculture farming work. Seeking warmer weather conditions, by late fall, throughout the cold winter and early spring the farmers had to move the animals to the mountains’ lower terrain, passing through Nagorno-Karabakh,” Gulmammad recalls.
The young school-going children would travel with their parents as they relocated the cattle for the duration of the winter months. They had a dedicated teacher accompanying them in order to continue their schooling without interruption. Gulmammad was among those children. If a traveling family had older children, they remained in the village with relatives and attended the village’s school.
In the spring of 1992, as each year at that time, the villagers were preparing to return to their village in Lachin. However, just a few days before their departure, Lachin became occupied territory. The villagers, including Gulmammad’s family, got stuck in the Aghjabadi District.
Had they moved to Lachin just a week earlier, they not only would have gotten trapped in Lachin, but their chances to escape the enemy were so slim that they could have been massacred all together. Under those possibilities, the situation of being caught in the relatively safer side in central Azerbaijan – referred to as lower Karabakh – was considered being lucky.
At the end of the war, due to the fact that they were familiar with the area, had relatives living there and did not know any other place, most of the displaced Azerbaijanis from Sheylanli village and Lachin gathered in the Takhta Korpu settlement of the Aghjabadi District. The few families who were working for the collective farms and got stuck in Aghjabadi had some of their personal belongings which they always brought along for their temporary seasonal relocation to lower Karabakh.
The rest of the villagers who escaped the Armenian enemy had run for their lives empty handed. Many locals who were still unaware of the City of Lachin siege were making their way from the mountains in order to pass through Lachin to safer areas in Azerbaijan. Sadly they got trapped, massacred or taken hostage.
Others tried to retract and escape via Kalbajar over the snowy peaks of the high mountains to the North; over the Omar Pass, 3,260 meters (10,700 ft) above sea level. Consequently, many starved or froze to death.
“So, yes, I believe we were lucky to get stuck in Aghjabadi. But the fact that we were no longer in the midst of the war zone did not mean we were safe. The summer’s ferocious heat and illnesses took the lives of many of our loved ones,” recalls Gulmammad. “We were mountain people who got stuck in semi-desert furnace-like heat terrain. The heat, illnesses and lack of proper nutrition claimed the lives of many of our people.”
The Aghjabadi district’s terrain conditions were harsh. Flat and salty soil, snake infested uninhabited land. The summer temperature at times reached 110 degree Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius) and there was hardly any drinkable water. Permanent structures to house the displaced people were not built because they all thought the situation was temporary.
Neither the escapees nor Azerbaijan that was at that time struggling with a shattered economy had the means to build better dwelling structures. People of poor health died. Diseases spread to the point that the cemetery had to be fenced in order to avoid the spread of disease. The refugee camp was set up very quickly, and it was very disorganized. Humanitarian aid was scarce. The United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) randomly delivered flour, beans, and foul smelling liquid oil.
Due to Section 907* of the United States Freedom Support Act, the displaced people did not receive any help from the US. “In a search I once conducted I found out that the US provided the Armenian aggressor, the fully responsible party for so much pain and suffering, quadruple the humanitarian aid per capita than to Azerbaijan. Essentially the US left many of the displaced Azerbaijanis to starve and die,” Gulmammad explains.
*Section 907 of the United States Freedom Support Act bans any kind of direct United States aid to the Azerbaijani government. This ban made Azerbaijan the only post-Soviet state not to receive direct aid from the United States government to facilitate economic and political stability. The Act, strongly lobbied for by the Armenian-American community in the US, was passed in response to Azerbaijan’s alleged blockade of Armenia during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War between the two nations.
In response for Azerbaijan’s support of the US war on international terror, right after 9/11, in which Azerbaijan was providing the US with safe airspace passage and was also present in the campaign with its peacekeeping contingency, on October 24, 2001, the US Senate adopted an amendment to the Act that would provide US Presidents with the ability to waive Section 907 and they have done so each year ever since. However, the element to pressure Azerbaijan still exists.
From Temporary to a Prolonged Refugee Status
As it turned out, in 2001, Gulmammad left to study in Baku. His family found themselves staying in the Takhta Korpu settlement until 2003, when they decided to relocate.
“Since my family used to do the cattle relocation yearly, we were better organized and thus our living conditions at Takhta Korpu were somewhat better than others,” Gulmammad remembers. “Whatever the situation was, we had to make the best of it. For nine years I lived in Takhta Korpu; my family lived there for 11 years. When people realized that the situation was no longer temporary, they started to look elsewhere to see where they could live.”
We were treated unfairly. While, after Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviets in 1991, the government was privatizing and distributing land, the IDP (Internally Displaced People) did not receive land, comparable in size to the land they lost and left behind.
Since all the villagers were farmers they took up work with Azerbaijani farm owners. It was a barter deal. The IDP would raise his cattle on the farm owner’s land in exchange for taking care of and performing work on the farm. “The locals looked at us as peasants, kind of lower class; a stigma developed around us,” Gulmammad remembers the years past.
“In 2003, while I was attending 2nd year at Baku State University, my father took up the farming exchange offer; to take care of a farm in exchange for raising his own cattle. We were treated badly, we were humiliated.”
Gulmammad’s father found himself moving from one farm to another. Since the IDP could not lease land directly from the government, on his 4th farm move he managed to lease land, through a third party, at a much higher price than the going market price. Gulmammad’s father passed away and today his brother is still working the leased land farm.
15 Kilometers From Sheylanli
Recently, Gulmammad joined a group of army personnel and media members who traveled to Lachin. It was his first trip, almost a year since the war ended, to the liberated territory. The landmines the Armenians planted as they were losing the war and were retreating from the land they illegally occupied, are making it unsafe to travel at leisure.
The Armenians have not released the landmine maps, which makes the demining work so much more complicated.
The group traveled through parts of the Kalbajar District, located in the west of the country and borders Lachin, where demining, road and infrastructure construction projects are taking shape fast.
Hot Spring on the way in Kalbajar; there are many such hot springs in Kalbajar and Lachin – Video credit Gulmammad Mammadov
Right now Lachin is on the demining waiting list. At this point demining takes priority at the Fuzuli District, Aghdam region, one of Azerbaijan’s 66 districts, located in the south-west of the country and is part of the Upper Karabakh Economic Region, bordering Khojavend, Aghjabadi, Beylagan, Jabrayil districts, and the Ardabil Province of Iran.
The International Airport in Fuzuli is currently under construction. It will be one of the landlocked country’s seven international airports.
When Gulmammad entered the Kalbajar Region, which borders Lachin he recalls becoming very emotional. He was overwhelmed with emotions that were hidden for many years under the struggles of being an IDP, the longing for the land from where his family was expelled and “Next Year in Lachin,” the optimistic yearning saying the Lachin IDPs always included during any possible occasion. The Lachin IDPs idealized the name Lachin, it became sacred to them.
Just like the Jewish people who always say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” what they always said while in exile for 2000 years. But the saying remains. It is a reminder of where they were expelled from, to where they returned and where they will always live.
“Travelling to Lachin was like waking up from a long dream, but it was a sad-sweet reality,” Gulmammad gets emotional.
When he passed the Lachin road sign it was like passing hallowed ground. Where people do not get sick, or die young. “When I actually saw the sign, it was difficult to perceive,” Gulmammad recalls the event. “We suffered so much as IDPs that I was engulfed with numbness while facing reality.”
Gulmammad knew that his Sheylanli village was only 15 kilometers away. But he thinks it was better they could not advance and reach the village since the landmines were not yet cleared.
“At that moment I preferred not to see the village. It was rather scary to think that I would see the ruins of my home, my village. The good memories of my home, my village, my childhood I so much cherished and for so many years would be replaced with what is left of them on the ground. I needed to amass courage to face the new reality. But the feeling that my village is still there was comforting. Setting safety aside, there is nothing to prevent me from going back. That is a very comforting feeling,” Gulmammad explained his inner trepidation.
The return of the displaced people from Lachin to their lands has been made much more difficult by Armenia. By refusing to provide the landmine mapping, by refusing to sign a peace agreement with Azerbaijan, which translates to possible further military encounters between the two countries, Armenia inhibits the full return of the displaced Lachin people to their homes and land. Armenia hinders the rebirth of stolen life.
Nowadays, Gulmammad Mammadov is a Faculty Member, Assistant Professor of Physics, at ADA University, Baku, Azerbaijan.
After the landmines are removed and the land is declared safe, the 78,565 Lachin population, scattered in 58 cities and regions of Azerbaijan, will be able to return to their native territories, since one city, one settlement and 125 villages of the Lacin district have been liberated from Armenia’s illegal occupation.